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26 January 2017

Haussmann’s Paris

Alexandre Labasse

Haussmann strove for everything, for everything in Paris to be “embellished… expanded… rehabilitated.” He expressed a wish that was both for the above and the below ground, for the beautiful and the useful, and from overall picture down to the smallest detail. In seventeen years, the prefect of Paris laid 600 km of sewers and 175 km of streets, built city halls for the ar­rondissements and schools, designed squares, parks, and woods, stimulated private investment, rebuilt neighborhoods in the city center, and envisioned those at the outskirts. Rarely has a public official had such an impact on popular culture. His name embod­ies the Grands Travaux, the major public works of the Second Empire, and by extension, the city’s transformations into the ear­ly 20th century. Still today, the name Haussmann delineates the city and gives shape to its urban cityscape. He personifies the city of Paris’ urban identity in the present day more than anyone else.

Haussmann’s myth, which grew during his mandate, thanks to Jules Ferry’s pen3 and caricatures in the satirical journal Paris Comique, comprises a time and space far great­er than that of the works he oversaw. His plans, which were based on previous studies and works, form a palimpsest of the studies and plans made by his contemporaries, such as the first Plan d’Ensemble for the breachings that Jacques Séraphin Lanquetin, President of the Municipal Commission, devel­oped in 1839, or the works credited to his predecessors at the Seine prefecture, especially those carried out by Claude-Phi­libert Barthelot, comte de Rambuteau, between 1833 and 1848, and Jean-Jacques Berger between 1848 and 1853. His colossal stature and this unique personalization were reinforced after the fact by the hagiography that emerged mostly from the Baron’s selective memories. His Mémoires4 in fact provide a singular recollection of the missions and their actors. The ar­chitect Eugène Deschamps, author of the Plan de Paris (1852- 1853) is described as a simple “draughtsman,” and Napoléon III, as the “program’s inspiration.” History often ignores the involvement of the Emperor who, under the influence of his time in London from 1846 to 1848, announced in his “Em­bellishment Project” in August 1853: “the height of houses shall always be equal to, and never greater than, the width of the streets,” (point 2), “a map describing all the improvement projects shall be printed and made public,” (point 4), and “the plan shall extend all the way to the fortifications” (point 5).

The current perception of Haussmann not only attributes actions and commitments concomitant with or prior to his Parisian mandate; it also assigns to him a number of proj­ects and developments after his dismissal on January 5, 1870. This assimilation by formal proximity extends in particular to the continuity of actors who followed his precepts and meth­ods. The government adopted an approach that had been de­cried by opponents who were then entrusted to lead the city’s projects. On June 14, 1871, Jean-Baptiste Léon Say, the new prefect, entrusted technical and administrative authority over the active agencies within the Public Works Department and then the Public Works and Water Department (upon Eugène Belgrand’s death in 1878) to Jean-Charles-Adolphe Alphand. Both had participated in Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, re­spectively in the Water and Sewer Office and the “Promenades and Plantations” office. Similarly, the buildings constructed under the successive edicts of 1882, 1884, and 1902, which were supposed to break with the austerity of their predeces­sors, preserved the principle of shared walls and the conti­nuity of the buildings’ alignment along the edge of the street. Building permits, issued under the authority of the corps of architectes voyers, the builders of streets, railways and water­ways – who had often been recruited by Haussmann –, en­acted both the prefect’s strategy and his system. By the begin­ning of WWI, the city appeared fully Haussmann-ized, and in fact, Haussmann’s influence exceeds that of his century, and merges with the very notion of Paris.

“Paris Haussmann” explores this homogenous, polymor­phous cityscape created as a derivation or transformation of a previous form that became part of a longer process, one that proved itself capable of changing and evolving. The study uses the form to transcend history. It accounts more than it re­counts. Removed from a chronology of official documents or the responsibility for facts and events, it also keeps its dis­tance from manuscripts, memoirs, chronologies, archives, engravings, paintings, and the first photographs made from glass-plate negatives. It instead seeks to map, measure, and quantify our own urban-ness as we understand it. It sketches out the full spaces and assesses the empty ones, preferring ac­tual mass to anecdote. It thus frees the architecture of its con­tent and initial function, as it itself has often done over time. Devoid of its function and varying in its uses, each architec­ture reveals its true nature and, paradoxically, its identity. This study visually categorizes and compares the main axes, iden­tifies the public spaces, organizes the blocks and buildings in function of their current geometries. The results validate the initial hypotheses and contradict our assumptions.

This analysis looks at form as a way of understanding meaning; it is thus based, ironically, on the words of one of the Haussmann system’s most prominent detractors, Victor Hugo. Acting on the premise that “form is the substance that rises to the surface6,” this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue provide a reinterpretation of the city, both in terms of its vol­ume and its histories and usages. The information acquired through the visualization and the development of technolo­gies and calculations by the architects Umberto Napolitano and Benoit Jallon and the architect and engineer Franck Bout­té have yielded a new Haussmann tree diagram according to contemporary criteria of mobility, practices, and consumption. How “walkable” is the Haussmann urban fabric compared to other metropolitan networks? What is the density of the Pari­sian model compared to international standards? What is the efficiency of the built footprint at the block level in relation to contemporary typologies? This is a rejuvenated description of the Haussmann form that considers the challenges faced by the cities of today, which strive to be sensible, environmentally sustainable, dense, intense, agile, and to create new paradigms that define an urban and architectural model whose primary quality is that it is already proven and admired. A known sense of apprehension and acceptability are also values that informed this study. They help validate complex, synchronic equations and render them commonplace.

Determined to create progress, Georges Eugène Haus-smann intended aimed to transform Paris into an exemplary industrial society through his program of improvements. He therefore intended to fulfill at once social aspirations, human needs, and technological evolutions. This plan, supported by a century of experimentation, was able to resolve ahead of time an equation that is indispensable to the city of tomorrow, one which is profoundly collective in its thinking and thrifty in its consumption. “Paris Haussmann” seeks to qualify, quanti­fy, and calibrate the criteria that form a model at once known and yet, somehow still largely unknown. Its revealed capac­ities encourage us to reconsider the axioms of current urban planning and design within a context where performance requirements exist harmoniously with the pleasure of hab­itation, where resilience becomes architecture.

“Are you looking for flexibility? Keep building stone walls.”

Alexandre Labasse, Director of the Pavillon de l'Arsenal